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Somalia Nearing Disaster
Washington, December 19, 2008 – Unthinkable as it may seem Somalia looks set to plunge into a wave of even greater chaos when Ethiopian and African Union troops withdraw later this month
The international community now seems resigned to Somalia’s status as the world’s most failed state yet - almost unimaginably - the country is perilously close to a wider human catastrophe.
6,500 Ethiopian and African Union troops are due to withdraw from Somalia at the end of this month. Their legacy will be a complete power vacuum which risks triggering an even fiercer civil war between the heavily armed factions riven by competing visions of extreme Islamic militancy.
The major world powers have only engaged again in the region because of a spate of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden. The possibility of unrestrained anarchy in Somalia has naturally heightened diplomatic activity on wider security issues in the Horn of Africa.
But the prospects for the Somali people look bleak from any perspective. Edward Mason of Independent Diplomat, said: “It’s a slow burn disaster largely ignored by the world’s media and governments – the result in large part of a catastrophically negligent international policy towards Somalia.”
UN resolution 1851, agreed this week, now permits any country to employ, “any means necessary” to pursue pirates on land and air. The emphasis of the international community’s response to Somalia is clearly still on force. The US could exert huge influence but since 2001 their agenda has not extended beyond what is deemed necessary action in the “war on terror”. They were strong supporters of the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia two years ago.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has tried and failed to persuade 50 countries to lead or contribute to a peacekeeping force. There were hopes Turkey might volunteer but Ankara has now refused. Their reluctance is understandable; the UN has not even sent a reconnaissance mission to fully assess the security risk.
Somalia now looks too difficult a political issue for any power to resolve. The prospects for peace are as derelict as the ‘ghost capital’ of Mogadishu.
The current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has never exerted anything like controlling power; what little they had is dwindling fast. The dominant military force of insurgents amongst the various splinter groups in southern central Somalia is Al-Shabab (or the ‘lads’). They have overrun several towns in recent weeks, including the strategic ports of Kismayo and Merca – they are now threatening Mogadishu.
Al-Shabab adhere to an extreme interpretation of Sharia; like the former Taliban Government in Afghanistan, they wield severe punishment for anyone indulging in the ‘un-Islamic’ activities of listening to music or watching a film. One local commentator blamed the US for the irresistible ascendancy of Al-Shabab: “America has created precisely the radicalised security threat they so feared."
Somalia already has the worst famine situation in the world. World Food Programme spokesman, Peter Smerdon, based in Nairobi, said: “The figures are very substantial. There are now 3.4 million Somalis entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. This year we have supplied 260,000 tonnes of food.”
Al-Shabab’s control of the main port for aid supply, Merca, makes the supply routes of food look increasingly precarious. Smerdon said, “so far their presence has not been affected the aid programme. We are impartial. We deal with the authorities on the ground whoever they are. Security is our biggest problem. Across Somalia, 33 aid-related workers have been killed since January. It’s been a bad year.”
The Human Rights Watch report, So Much to Fear published last week, sets out in chilling detail the oppression and degradation of the people of Somalia.
The author, Chris Albin-Lackey, provided ample evidence of casual murders carried out regularly by troops from the TFG as well the Ethiopian occupiers effectively acting in a “climate of impunity”.
Sally Healy of the international analysis organisation, Chatham House, said the future was, “unpredictable and negative,” but blamed the Ethiopian intervention itself for, “generating a terrible insurgency” and fuelling the “historical enmity” between the two countries.
The threat to the lives of the main population is clear; already one million people have been displaced, another million live abroad. More than 800,000 have left the capital since last year. The Dadaab refugee camp, just over the border in Kenya, holds over 220,000 people - about the same population as Derby.
The fragile democracy of the former British Protectorate of Somaliland in the north has also been targeted. Al-Shabab set off a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks in Hargeisa in October killing about 30.
Michael Walls of Somaliland Focus UK said: “It is high time western nations reconsidered their strategies and looked to support those bits of Somalia that are currently functioning. Otherwise, we risk once again losing those rare flickers of hope that have so long been extinguished as the developed world continues to blunder its way through the world's most protracted and profound 'national' political crisis.”
After the troops withdraw, a few sparks of hope may yet emanate from a new more, enlightened US presidency. Obama has a long list of international crises to unpick following eight years of Bush/Cheney unilateralism.
But not even Barack Obama, blessed with the unique presidential attributes of a constructive and collegiate view of international relations, combined with an East African heritage may be able to resolve the intractable problem of Somalia. After twenty years of bloody chaos there are no levers left to pull.
This article was originally published on newstatesman.com at 09:49:51 on 19 December 2008